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26 February 2015

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian: the failures of language and the mysteries of the physical

Comparable to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”, The Vegetarian ties social refusal to sexual protest.

By Joanna Walsh

The Vegetarian
Han Kang. Translated by Deborah Smith
Portobello Books, 160pp, £12.99

Mr Cheong, a domestic bully and servile office worker in too-tight shoes, deliberately picked a wife who was “completely unremarkable in every way” until she became a vegetarian. Not a shocker, you’d think. “I knew that some people in other countries are strict vegetarians,” says Cheong’s boss. “Even here, you know, it does seem that attitudes are beginning to change.” But Yeong-hye’s decision slaughters the sacred cows of family and work. What is it about her gesture that causes inexplicable anger, or discomfort, in everyone she meets?

Han Kang’s slim trilogy of stories ties social to sexual protest. As Yeong-hye vegetates, her cheekbones become as “indecently prominent” as the nipples that she refuses to bra up. Her body excites violent desire in the male characters but she has lost interest in meat-eaters. She stops wearing elegant leather shoes or putting on make-up. Attraction is part of the mincing machine, as her sister’s existence as the overworked manager of a cosmetics store confirms, and Yeong-hye is no longer a willing cog.

Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband, a struggling artist, takes over in the second story. He is shocked that “his brother-in-law seemed to consider it perfectly natural to discard his wife as though she were a broken watch or household appliance”. Like Yeong-hye, he is “searching for something quieter, deeper, more private”. Yeong-hye’s act provokes his lust but also his creativity as he tries to make her body into art. “Perhaps,” he thinks, “the only way out of this hell of desire would be to make those images into a reality.” But his art is too focused on satisfying his desires to transcend its subject: “Never before had he set eyes on such a body, a body which said so much and yet was no more than itself.”

Han has said that The Vegetarian was “received as a story with extreme characters” in Korea. The reviewer John Self compared it to western “literature of disappearance and refusal”, from Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”. I’d be more specific: western tales of dwindling and disappearing women stretch from the lives of the saints (try Rudolph M Bell’s Holy Anorexia) to Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and beyond. Then there are the women who metamorphose (from Ovid’s nymphs to the heroine of Marie Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales), all those ladies-into-foxes, escaping the pressures of sex.

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​The cover of The Vegetarian.

Han insists that there is no comparable tradition in Korean writing, though there is a history of fatalistic narratives in which protagonists of both sexes are vanquished by circumstance – a storyline that has proved unattractive to western publishers and is one of the reasons Korean books have rarely been translated. Han also mentions Buddhist narratives and points out that, for readers in the original language, references to the Korean war would leap out. Yet The Vegetarian refuses to provide easy solutions to the questions it poses. “Stop eating meat, and the world will devour you whole,” Cheong tells his wife. The dreams that prompt Yeong-hye’s act of refusal reflect not only a sick society but her repressed anger and the violence inherent in nature. The book ends with a view of trees by a roadside and it is an image without comfort.

We never hear much of the vegetarian’s own story. Yeong-hye works writing captions for speech bubbles and her hobby is reading. Nevertheless, she is “a woman of few words”. Cheong can only look into his wife’s eyes “in order to judge whether she might possibly have been trying to tell me something”. The book is less about the vegetarian than about her family. The narrative slides expertly from the first-person voice of Cheong’s story – the author’s tongue firmly in her cheek, balancing humour with controlled fury – through the third person of the next section, which focuses on the artist, to the final story, centred around Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. This section, written in the third person, mixes In-hye’s thoughts with family memories and with the author’s narrative voice, not only describing In-hye’s empathetic nature but demonstrating an alternative to the self-centred voices of the book’s male characters. If not redemptive, it offers some hope.

Elegantly translated into bone-spare English by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian is a book about the failures of language and the mysteries of the physical. Yet its message should not undermine Han’s achievement as a writer. Like its anti-protagonist, The Vegetarian whispers so clearly, it can be heard across the room, insistently and with devastating, quiet violence.

Joanna Walsh is the fiction editor of 3:AM Magazine and the founder of the #readwomen campaign

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